Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A class in Callas-ness

Amelia Broome channels the divine Maria.


Theatre is about dreaming.  Dreaming big.

But there are limits.  And I think everyone involved in Master Class at the New Rep was dreaming just a little too big.  I am certainly a fan of its star, Amelia Broome, and I've generally admired the work of its intelligent director, Antonio Campo-Guzman - but neither seem to have faced the bottom line about Terrence McNally's valentine (or is it a raspberry?) to the great Maria Callas, undeniably the most fascinating diva of the twentieth century.

And that bottom line is: this show is nothing without an actress/panther who can prowl the stage with the same ferocity and neediness as Callas herself.  The role can't be a stretch.  It can't be an exploration.  It only exists as an apotheosis.  

But Amelia Broome, talented as she is, is much more pussycat than panther; indeed, she's known for projecting a gracious, maternal warmth.

Now, for all I know, Callas might have projected gracious warmth as well. But that's not what Terrence McNally has written; his Master Class is hardly a portrait of Callas in all her complexity - it's not even an accurate transcript of Callas as pedagogue (there are videos of her classes available which bear no resemblance to McNally's script).  It is, instead, a naïve sketch of Callas as drag queen, a kind of gay fantasia on operatic themes in which Callas-the-queer-icon always trumps Callas-the-actual-person. This is, shall we say, rather a narrow perspective, and without a galvanizing presence to animate McNally's puppet diva, his conceits grow repetitive, and long stretches of the script read as vulgar or simplistic.


Callas in mid-flight - Norma in 1957.

So this is not Terrence McNally's strongest play (yet it still won a Tony - sigh, only in New York!). Still, his conceit has some resonance, because there's a reason gay men revere Callas the way they do - and it all has to do with the braided power and vulnerability that come with self-transformation.

Maria Callas was born Sophia Cecelia Kalos (in Manhattan, not Greece) to an overbearing mother and weak father, who adored her older, slimmer sister (check, check and check on the gay-cliché crib sheet, btw).  She began her singing career as a somewhat chubby contralto - probably.  Frankly, nobody dares classify Callas's voice anymore, because she steadily pushed her range up to mezzo, then soprano, then coloratura territory seemingly through sheer force of will - rather as certain gay men tweeze and corset their way into out-sized visions of femininity. What's more, Callas drove herself into the most punishing vocal territory, mixing and matching roles that would make any voice teacher faint (in one famous season, she swung from Wagner's Brünnhilde to Bellini's Elvira in a matter of days).

Broome attempts to cast Callas' spell.
In the end, the voice was sui generis - indeed, Callas seemed to have several voices, including a strong baritone (she could sing from F below middle C up almost three octaves). But intriguingly, there was no clear line between any of these modes, and for her, the traditional "break" between head and chest voice didn't really exist (just as binary gender doesn't exist in drag). What's more, her sound was somehow inhumanly pure, and yet at the same time subtly unstable; what gave her performances a special thrill was the sense that the whole vocal edifice might topple off its heels at any moment.

And indeed, Callas ultimately destroyed her instrument; some claim her dramatic weight loss (she starved herself down to a glamorous sylph) was what, shall we say, tipped the scales; others claim the devastating end of her affair with Aristotle Onassis (who moved on from one trophy "wife" to another, Jacqueline Kennedy) was what sent her into a personal and artistic tailspin. But whatever the reason, her soprano began to collapse when she was in her late 40's (which is what makes the idea of her giving a master class rather ironic).

So it's no surprise that McNally couldn't resist sending the divine Callas, musically mute but in eternal high dudgeon, stalking through a heterosexual voice class like some diva-saurus rex. And there's fun to be had for a while, it's true, as she lays waste to the clueless fashion disasters who wander into her lair. But in the end, the vulnerability of her sense of self (and will), and her subsequently cruel "instruction," is all McNally has up his sleeve in dramatic terms - and it's enough for a sharp little one-act, but hardly a full evening.

Still, Broome does her best, and is generally diverting, if never entirely convincing (you can almost feel her suppressing her true self); she does fail, however, to make the swooning psychological breaks McNally has written into the play work.  But these are really the nadir of the script anyway; indeed, as Callas growls about Onassis' "uncircumcised Greek cock," whatever distance still exists between McNally's fantasies and the diva herself is erased, and we wonder whether she's staggering through memories of La Scala or the Ramrod.  But elsewhere in the cast the news is good, and so is the singing. The standout was tenor Darren Anderson's powerful turn, but Lindsay Conrad and Erica Spyres also acquitted themselves well.  (Spyres is a known quantity, of course; the surprise was Conrad's bumptiously amusing stage presence.)  Meanwhile Brendon Shapiro all but embodied the classic self-effacing rehearsal pianist, while the exasperated Michael Caminiti made every walk-on count.  Still, in the end, this was hardly a masterly Master Class - indeed, it made you wonder whether without a diva on hand to match Callas, this script is worth reviving.

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